Two years ago, some were asking if we had reached “peak ISIS.” One year ago, ISIS killed 130 people in Paris. So how has the popular geopolitical trade in predictions misled our understanding of ISIS?
The term “peak ISIS” became a popular geopolitical meme on Sunday talk shows and weekly news roundups, as the late Obama presidency shifted toward military engagement against the insurgency in Syria and Iraq. The Daily Beast‘s Jacob Siegel and the Atlantic Council’s Ramzy Mardini suggested that the group was reaching its territorial limit and warning against presuming that ISIS can easily go much beyond the vacuum it has so far filled. Their point, that its conventional battlefield campaign was being overextended, was echoed in part by a US Special Command analysis. Early ISIS victories, the argument goes, were due to weak and unprepared states and local sympathetic Sunni minorities rather than tactical acumen. ISIS gains, in other words, were a product of ungoverned spaces, a vacuum that need to be filled, but which could not be extended much farther. The failure of ISIS would result from its own internal failing to govern and defend what it had captured. But the idea that ISIS is successful because it filled a void suffers from an old trope of political physics, that its laws can be drawn by analogy from Newtonian principles. As if people were so simple.
The question of whether Fall 2014 was peak ISIS raises two issues. First, the idea of peak ISIS was floated as the insurgents were trying to hold on the large areas of western and central Iraq they tried to capture in June of 2014. Territorially, that appears to have been ISIS’s maximum to date. Yet this presupposes that territorial control is the right way to evaluate ISIS. As an insurgency claiming to form a state, territory has become a seductive idea appealing to our state-centric geopolitical imagination. It substitutes areal measure as an index of strength, reapplying older ideas that size equals power. There is certainly a material basis to power in its raw militaristic form; more territory provides additional sources of revenue and fighters and greater room to maneuver. What Al Qaida and ISIS have already shown us, however, is that they are not solely territorial actors, not yet anyway. Terrorist attacks and propaganda also serve as the basis for raising funds and recruiting fighters. Violence in other countries is not secondary to their territorial ambitions but rather the other way around at this time. So while concepts like Islamic State suggest a desire for something like a larger Caliphate, it would be analytically premature to index the war against ISIS to territorial control. Added to that the vagaries of gauging or even determining what qualifies as effective territorial control makes “peak ISIS” a dubious concept at best.
Second, the claim, perhaps hope, that one can identify a “peak ISIS” tells us something more important about our desire to find a high water mark in the midst of a flood. Like a high tide, it tells us the worst is over and the waters are receding. The apparent retreat of ISIS fighters on the ground is cold comfort considering the series of deadly terrorist attacks that continued in 2015 and 2016, both in the region and beyond, especially in Paris in November 2015. It obscures the improvisational nature of the current conflict, one whose asymmetrical qualities seem to elude our conceptual frames. Geopolitical predictions are, after all, only so much divination on the temple’s steps.
Consider the history of peak oil, the idea that petroleum production has reached its highest possible rate and will thereafter decline. This is predicted on a steadily rising demand for those resources. Taken a step further, peak oil and increasing supply would cause prices to rise steadily and petroleum based economies (read industrial economies) would face permanent costs for petroleum energy and significant medium term costs for retrofitting alternative fuel sources. Pessoptimists and creative-destruction types with a fondness for charismatic mega-fauna took heart that rising prices and economic turmoil would necessitate adoption of sustainable energy resources.
But peak oil hasn’t happened.
Instead, global oil production has outstripped demand. Why? The typical answer is technology. New techniques for visualizing subsurface structures during exploration have sped the search for new resources. Changes in extraction technology–such as oil sand and shale production–have led to a surge in oil production, especially in the US. But it may be, too, that the original idea from M. King Hubbert was an error in how we think about scale. Hubbert had observed that oil fields eventually reach a maximum in the rate of production and then slow considerably until depleted. He then scaled this to an abstract global oil field are presumed that it, under conditions of constant rising demand, would also reach a maximum production rate followed by decline. But Hubbert had not counted on the continuing advances in exploration and extraction. So what might look like peaking on a short temporal x-axis might be, in fact, a stair step on a longer chart of global growth in oil production. Looking at related phenomna such as creaming curves on a field or regional level reveal a similar scalar problem, which is that local peak-decline curves may smooth into global production growth. These problems of temporal and geographical scale don’t rule out a bigger peak that we can’t yet see. Hubbert tried to overcome the problem of not knowing the height of the peak thusly, “Our ignorance is not so vast as our failure to use what we know.”
Peak globalization, meanwhile, was declared to have passed back in 2007 (said Foreign Affairs in 2007 and Bloomberg in 2014). Harvard Business Review’s Bruce Nussbaum called it in 2010 on the basis of China’s supposed shift from partner to adversary and growing nationalism in key countries. He also mentions three other trends–urbanization, social media, and overpopulation–as together putting the costs of globalization ahead of its benefits. In 2015, Nation Review got around to their declaration that 2007 was the year the world started to fall apart. Among the factors they cited were declining trade, political freedom, and rising violence. Peak trade was suggested as a risk by the World Bank and IMF in 2010 with reports since then suggesting at least a slow trade caused by structural shifts in how trade relates to income and rising protectionism.
So was peak globalization circa 2007 a reliable estimate? The outcomes of the Brexit and 2016 US Presidential election certainly suggest this may be the case. Resentment over immigration have pushed the term deglobalization to the fore, a logical step after peak globalization but hardly a likely one. But one could hardly deglobalize fully. Autarky and shortage is not an option that any electorate would willingly endure. Global trade in goods and services, immigration and travel, communication and innovation, and invasive species (to name but a few of globalization’s goodies) will continue, even if global trade regimes are in for a “big fix” under more nationalistic governments.
The predictions of peak globalization ignores the context of the prediction. Judging future trends in global trade and GDP growth during the years after 2007 was an act of willful ignorance. The financial contagion, bank collapses, and rapid decline in consumer spending caused cascading and compounding downward effects on production, wages, and capital flows. And because the idea of peak globalization was already on the loose, the declines that followed the financial crisis were viewed in the context of a crisis with a shortened temporal scale magnifying the chicken-little effect. Capital flows, which are highly directional and fickle, have largely resumed their earlier trends. Commerce continues to show the broad hallmarks of globalization.
These efforts at predicting when scarcity and shortage overtake events and limit the future are doomed to disappoint. What they do reveal, however, is the workings of scarcity in the contemporary geopolitical imagination. There is only so much territory, so many oil wells, so many fighters. There are only so many dollars, so many consumers. We can take only so many immigrants. These and other bits of received wisdom fail to recognize the transformational qualities of technology and culture. Desire and improvisation. These are the predictable elements of the future.